Category Archives: Scary

Imprints in the Fog – A Halloween Tale

Hello! It’s Halloween, my favorite holiday, so I thought I’d share a spooky story.

Some of this is true; the history, location, thing I found, the man I met. Otherwise, this is a work of fiction. Happy Halloween!

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A disturbing thing happened yesterday.

I decided to go for a walk out by Land’s End, where a long, twisty trail runs through flowers, trees, hillside. Off to the right as I’m walking is the Pacific Ocean, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the foghorns. Since it was foggy and lovely, the horns were playing their tune, such a perfect day.

I kept walking down the familiar narrow path until I got to the long staircase to Mile Rock Beach. It’s a tiny spot, covered in logs and rocks, just a little spit of sand really, but very beautiful, and I had it all to myself.

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I perched on some driftwood and watched the waves crash; it fills my heart to see that. Honestly, I’ll take a rocky ocean with dramatic waves over a calm blue sea any day of the week. After a while I walked over the wet, slippery rocks that join to another little beach, and I found the strangest thing.

There are a lot of old WWII remnants around the City, Fort Point I guess is the best known, but there are random machine gun nests and gun turrets in the Presidio and around, so coming up on a ruin of some sort is not really unusual. But this was different.

It looked like a building that had collapsed from erosion, also not uncommon here. Every now and then you may find a tombstone from one of the old cemeteries, back when they moved them all to Colma. Except they didn’t always move them, some of the tombstones were repurposed, the bodies forgotten. Now and then, they turn up. Renovations at the Legion of Honor went poorly, at least for whoever found the first coffin, and the anonymous fellow no longer Resting in Peace. It’s all part of our spooky history.

But this baffled me. It looked like it had been a bathroom, judging by the tile. The graffiti told me I was far from the first to find it, and a decaying vulture had been there for a while, but I still felt like an intruder.

Since I have photos, I won’t spend too much time describing what it looked like, but what happened, I couldn’t capture on my phone.

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My mind has been cluttered, in fact, I went on this walk to clear it out a bit, so when I heard someone say my full name, Susanne, I whipped my head around to see who was there, and how did they know a name I haven’t used since I was about 11? Occasionally when hiking out here, I’ve come across a man who lives in the brush. The first time I saw him, he was standing by his tent, holding a couple of plastic gas cans that I assume he filled with water somewhere. We both froze, each afraid of the other’s response. I just walked slowly away; he passed me a little while later in another spot. I’ve seen him a time or two since then, but I’m relatively certain he’s corporeal. I wonder who he is and what he has seen out there in the trees and fog.

After a scan of the beach and it’s many hiding places, I convinced myself that my ears played a trick on me. “It was the waves crashing, that’s all. Sussssannneeeeee…a wave, that’s all.” I poked around the ruin a little more, and I found an intact room, plumbing fixtures still attached, one small porcelain sink, but no toilet or shower. I expect they had been on the other side.

I tested the floor, and it was solid. I started to imagine, who used this room? Was it military? It looked like it, and that wouldn’t be uncommon here. But where did it come from? I know the area well, and there was no structure like this up on the cliff. What kinds of things did they worry about, what kept them awake at night? What made them blissfully happy? If this was a WWII bunker, how did they deal with the stress? Although the City was one of the best places they could be during the war.

It hit me as it does sometimes. Most of these soldiers could have been my sons. Now, they’d be 90+ but then, just kids. Just kids in this tiled box in the fog and the horns.

“Susanne….”

I heard it again. I turned too quickly, slipped on the slick tile, and landed awkwardly on my left thigh. I sat there for a moment, very aware how defenseless I was, how vulnerable, when I heard a rustling in the trees, and the sound of feet trying to navigate the moss-covered rocks. My heart was pounding, and I breathed with my mouth open, so I wouldn’t make as much noise. From where I was I stared directly at the dead vulture, all the feathers on its wings splayed out around a neatly picked ribcage. I wondered how often it feasted on human flesh. I couldn’t shake this morbid thought as the squeak of rubber soles got closer, and the pain in my hip got sharper, the fog turned so thick it was light rain, and I couldn’t see much through my glasses. I thought, “That poor vulture won’t get to enjoy me.” I and covered my mouth and laughed quietly at the disturbing thought.

Just then the footsteps stopped. Slowly, and now soaking wet, I scooted down the floor to the opening, braving a quick glance. My heart raced and pounded like a timpani, deep breaths couldn’t calm it down. All around me, going about their business, men made of fog and shadow, wearing uniforms, dissolving in the wind, and reforming, going about their day in silence. I sat with my jaw hanging, in terror and fascination. And then one of them turned and looked directly in my eyes. He saw me. He reached out his hand and said, “Susanne.” then dissolved as the fog billowed, and reformed slowly in front of me, body wafting in the breeze as he regained form, not two feet away, beckoning me to join him. “Susanne.” was all he said. Although frozen, I felt my hand reach back to him, when the fog horns went still, and the little beach echoed with the sound of one lonely trumpet playing “Taps.”

All of the soldiers, including mine, looked around with sorrow in their cold, empty eyes, and then a look of quiet acceptance passed on their faces as they faded into the fog and the horns returned.

I got up as quickly as I could and realized I would be able to walk across the rocks. As I arose, I saw a figure near the cliff, but he was human. A gust of wind cleared the air for a moment. The young homeless man who lives in the brush was standing there with a battered trumpet tucked under his arm. He stared at me for a moment, saluted, and started the climb up the cliff.

Whatever happened to those boys, so many decades ago, I hope they have peace now. That this was just an echo in time. But since there is a sentry with a trumpet, I expect they come back now and then.

I wonder if anyone has ever taken that boy’s hand?

Tragedy and the Best of Us

We had another small earthquake up here in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was 4.5, large enough to rattle me awake and cause my metal Hello Kitty charms to wave on their stand, making a creepy “clinky clinky” sound. This one sort of rolled and lasted in my mind, a long time. The one we had earlier this month was a single hard jolt. Both of these scared the crap out of me, but the one last night lasted long enough to cause me to get out of bed, throw on some clothes and boots, grab glasses and phone, and wonder where Crazy Legs got to. Chris is on his own, he’s a human, he knows what’s up.

Anyway, my brother-in-law was kind enough to remind me that the quake last night happened three days before the 30th anniversary of Loma Prieta, aka, “The ’89 Quake.” I mean, I would have put that together using my superior counting skills but still, that was a bit of a punch. I remember it, of course, and like everyone in who experienced it, we all have a story to tell.

I still lived in Fremont with my ex-husband. We, like so many others, this is important later, sat down to watch the World Series, Oakland A’s vs. San Francisco Giants, affectionately known as the Bay Bridge Series. (The Bay Bridge runs from Oakland to San Francisco, that’s important later too.)

I lived in a fairly typical suburban apartment, outside entrances, two stories, we were on the second, and the buildings formed a square around a pool.

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In defiance of all logic, I have a picture of that apartment, looking out the kitchen window, the pool down by the lights, Mission Peak in the distance, obligatory 1980s crystals hanging proudly.

The game hadn’t started yet when the couch shook. We had a pendulum light above the table which we, and every Californian with a swinging device, looked at as sort of a poor man’s Richter Scale. It was swinging, so we sat in cat-like readiness and then, wham! it hit. It was powerful and seemed to last forever. We bolted to the door, got down the stairs in about two hops, and huddled up with all our neighbors. I mentioned a pool earlier. One of the clearest memories I have at that point is a mini-tsunami happening, large waves on either side left the pool about ¾ empty. It was utterly surreal and beyond creepy.

After a while we went back in. We still had electricity, so we turned on the news. I remember a newscaster reporting with nothing but a single bulb light, and then we saw two things I will never forget and will never leave my heart.

While it did look like San Francisco was burning to the ground (they kept showing the same footage over and over, my friends elsewhere were terrified) what hit hard were the Bay Bridge and the Cypress Structure.

An entire section of the bridge collapsed, stopping on the bottom deck. The bridge was replaced a mere 24 years later. Yes, that is completely unacceptable.

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But what sticks out for me, what has now become local lore, is the collapse of the Cyprus Freeway and the local response to it. I won’t describe any of the deaths, you can look it up if you like, because this isn’t about gory details, it’s about the people in the area who came to help, regular people with no training and no reason not to simply run the other way, but chose to run toward the as yet not understood danger, carrying their ladders they use to wash their windows, paint their houses, or any number of mundane things, put them up against the freeway and start trying to save the people trapped inside.

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See, the Cyprus was a double-decker freeway, and the top simply pancaked down. When my ex-husband and I watched, and realized what had happened, and saw the smoke coming from the inside of the two huge layers, we just cried. It was too much. But these amazing people, this happened on the Oakland side, they didn’t flinch, they didn’t pause to wonder, they simply went and helped and surely saw gruesome things. I cannot, I literally cannot, comprehend the bravery and selflessness that took.

Oh, I mentioned the importance of the World Series. Normally at that time, there would have been far more cars, but because of the World Series, people left work early or stayed home. That’s something to be thankful for, I suppose.

For us, life went on as normal. We lost a couple glasses, but there was no other damage. The pool was refilled, the building inspected, we didn’t lose anyone, so we got off easy. I am very aware of that.

San Francisco was not burned to the ground and was quickly rebuilt. Our flag is a phoenix rising from flames, so we are no stranger to this.

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Which makes me wonder, when does a terrifying tragedy become a proudly told legend? I have to pause when I realize ’89 was 30 years ago, so there are people with 10-year-old children for whom this is a legend. So we tell these stories, like I just did, as if we were telling a story of adventure to the grandchildren, regaling them with tales of survival that have become nearly romantic.

San Francisco had a famous disaster in 1906, imaginatively named “The ’06 Quake and Fire.” I expect a good number of you know about this, but for locals, especially those of us with family who survived, this is a point of pride, both for the family connection, which shows deep roots in the City, and also the fortitude of the survivors who rebuilt and moved on from a far worse disaster than ’89.

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For the record, my Grandmother was 5 at the time and remembered it pretty well. I’ve written about that before so I won’t go into it here too much.

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Grandma is on the bottom, Belle Chapin. The name may sound familiar.

Every year there is a commemoration at Lotta’s Fountain at the exact moment it hit, 5:12 a.m. Because of the who-the-hell-is-up-at-that-ridiculous-hour time, I had never been, but in 2006 on the 100th anniversary, Chris and I did go. Standing in the giant crowd, waiting for the clock to hit the witching hour, a man turned to me and said “Survivor?” I knew instantly what he meant, did I have a family member in the quake. When I said yes, we started telling our stories and became a cluster of wide-eyed people eager to tell our tales. Unfortunately Chris, being from Houston, was quickly moved aside.

“After the 1906 earthquake, dazed survivors looked for anything left standing to congregate around. Lotta’s Fountain served as a meeting place for people to be reunited with their loved ones.”

The Loma Prieta Quake, (Loma Prieta was the fault that broke) is 30 years old on October 17, 2019. It is not the distant past, not to me, but to some, it is just a story told by the – ahem – older people and photos and video and one extremely unfortunate movie. It is books and horror and stories that will break the hardest heart.

But do you know what it is for me? What I try to hang on to? A story that I’m happy to say gets nearly equal time?

Those people in Oakland who risked their lives and mental health by climbing into the collapsed freeway and speaking kindly to strangers and as gently as possible getting them out of the cars to safety. Those people are true heroes, those people are the best of us. Disasters do bring out the best in us, most of the time.

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I have no idea if I would have been one of the brave. I hope I never have to find out. When the footage came on, all I could do was cry, there was nothing I could do to help. And maybe that was part of it, feeling helpless. Maybe it’s just because I was a sheltered 21-year-old suburban girl with little sense, and went on with my life very quickly.

Maybe if I’d been there, I would have helped in some way. I like to think so. But until I’m in a situation like that, I can’t say. Even now as a 51-year-old City girl with a lot of scars, I really can’t say.

We don’t have to wait until the next Big One, or whatever natural disaster your world is prone to, we can be the best of us right now. Even some small gesture, to your own abilities, can make a world of difference.

In the meantime, I would very much appreciate it if the Ring of Fire just settled the hell down.

 

Here are some resources for disaster preparedness. Stay safe everyone!

Ready – Disaster Preparedness

Red Cross

 

Halloween is Coming!

Is it Halloween yet? Trick question, it’s always Halloween.

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Wedding gift.  But of course.

When the chill comes into the air and the days get shorter, Chris and are giddy waiting for everyone else to start putting out spooky things and black clothes and Addams Family memes. Then we put on our best boots and long coats, go to the Halloween stores and skip across the parking lot singing “It’s the most wonderful time…of the yeeeaaarrrrr…..”

A few years ago we were picking out some serving dishes shaped like skulls and a nice print for the living room. A young lady working there asked us if we needed help. “Can I help you find anyt….oooooh, you shop here for all year, don’t you?” We giggled prettily and skipped away. Yes, we do shop there for all year. Our goal is to be Gomez and Mortica and I think we’re well on our way.

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Every home should have a plague mask.

We love the fog belt in San Francisco, where there are many ravens hopping around being ravens, crows forming murders, fog horns singing a mournful song to the sea. Sorry, got lost in thought.

It’s normal to enjoy being scared, or Stephen King would be a copy-editor. As adults we know these things can’t really hurt us. But it gets us right in the fear receptors, something deep inside, whatever it is that scares each person. A big one for me is dread, what isn’t seen. I don’t like jump scares, I like the gut squeezing build-up, or the just barely perceptible mumbling or the thing that morphs into a menace that shouldn’t be.

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If you know what this is, you’ve seen one of my favorite scary movies ever. (The Haunting, 1963 if you haven’t.)

As an adult, I know that none of this is real but as a kid, oh it’s serious business. This happened when I was about 7 or 8, and it was one of the best moments of fear-imprinting ever, so I share it with you. (Fear-imprinting may not be a thing, I just thought it sounded cool.)

We had gone to visit an aunt who lived outside Chicago in a huge old three-story house, with dozens of closets to play hide-and-go-seek, and a giant basement. As a girl in a one-story ranch house with no basement in suburban California, this was utterly alien to me. But as bizarre as the basement was, it was the furnace, a coal furnace, that blew off the top of my vivid imagination head. I had never even conceived of such a thing, and except for a steam locomotive, I’d never seen coal used as fuel.

One day, I went to the basement alone, it must have been a game of “Truth or Dare.” I pulled the chain of each bare light bulb as I went down the stairs, step by squeaky wooden step, and down onto the cement floor of this otherworldly space, and walked slowly forward, my eyes on my feet. I could hear my heartbeat and very little else. A few more steps and then…I looked up.

And there it was, this giant beast. It was staring right at me! It had many red, rectangular eyes, angry eyes, but its mouth! Huge, gaping, glowing yellow and white. I stood, unable to move as it fixed its red eyes on me, as it frowned its open-mouth frown. What do I do? All I knew is that it was going to devour me messily with a great deal of noise that no one would hear because I was way down in the basement which was larger than my entire house. After a lifetime fit into a minute or two, it hissed at me! A long, cat-like hiss. I was going to die.

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It didn’t look like this, but this one looks like Bender from Futurama and that’s funny.

I have no memory of running through the paths of boxes, Christmas ornaments and forgotten toys to the stairs and up, but the next I knew I was in the brightly lit kitchen. I told my older sister and brother what had happened and they responded exactly the way an older sister and brother would, they laughed themselves dizzy.

I had kept my eyes on my feet because a long-accepted rule of kid-lore states, “if I can’t see the scary thing, it can’t hurt me.” The rule includes the subset “if my limbs are under the covers it can’t get me.”

Is this really kid stuff though? Is it any different than horoscopes or T.V. psychics? It’s a very small step from “there’s a ghost in my closet” to “there’s a ghost in my closet, call the Ghost Hunters.” It’s the same need, I think, to be afraid of something we know deep inside can’t hurt us, but we believe just enough to be afraid.

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 Ermastus is offended by the stereotype, quite frankly.

Anyway, when you watch a scary movie, especially a slasher type, there’s always that moment when someone does something that makes you think “No! Don’t go there, do go toward the sound, you dumbass!” Then you’re annoyed because nobody would ever be that stupid, I mean, who would ever be that stupid?

Um, about that.

Chris and I were visiting friends in Petaluma. It was a cold night and there was steam coming out of a manhole cover, that’s normal. But we got closer and heard what sounded like both metal scraping and a sort of growl. Did we – A: Cross the street with some urgency B: Note it, and walk around it or C: Walk right up to it, stand on either side, lean over and say “ooooh, what’s that noise?”

C. We did C. We would have been dead before the opening credits. Now when we watch scary movies and someone says, “Nobody would ever be that stupid.” we just sort of glance away and munch our popcorn. Yeah, nobody would be that stupid.

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Would not put it past me.

Sometimes as a skeptic I get called on to help someone logic out of a situation they can’t explain. Sometimes that answer is very, very funny.

Imagine this setting. A big group of us are camping beside a river. It’s dark, some people are getting as crazy as near 50-year-old people do. (Wooo hoo! We’re gonna stay up until 11 tonight!) We weren’t really roughing it though, there was a building with toilets and showers.

So I’m sitting there near the fire, and two of my dear friends run down the path from the bathrooms, linked arm in arm, scared and laughing, wanting me to go with them to check out a ghost in the bathroom. Ok, fine. I set down my sparkling water, and off we went.

As we walk into the bathroom, my girls are giggling but also scared (I really should have messed with them.) “So it looks like your ghost has great taste, it carries a Louis Vuitton bag.” That was the first clue. Ghosts don’t have jobs, how can they afford to buy stuff? Think about it! Anyway, I moved further in and I heard the “ghost,” who was a woman, by herself in the shower, and was in fact moaning.

No ghost, just a woman with little shame and a lot of stamina.

So we laughed that release of tension laugh, and we talk about that to this day. So yeah, it’s not just kids who do this, most of us do to some degree or another.

One doesn’t have to be Gomez and Morticia year-round like we are to love Halloween. It’s just fun, it’s fun to be something or someone you’re not, just for a night you give yourself permission to be silly or play pretend. It’s not just for kids, dammit! You can go play too! Go look for the creepy monster in the basement, do the mind-numbingly stupid thing and lean over the manhole that clearly contains a chain dragging monster waiting to break free, or investigate the ghost with a designer bag and needs that just can’t wait.

It’s August 21 as I write this, just a little over two months until the big day. I do love Christmas, but it’s a different animal. I try to be a little Dickensesque and keep Halloween in my heart all year. Play, laugh at absurdities, be nice to kids, and never, ever go toward the creepy sound in the attic barefoot, dressed in a flimsy nightgown and carrying a candle.